We've heard a lot of praise lately that TV is currently in some "Golden Age", and "Better than ever!" And by "better", the definition usually given is that we now have more of it.
Budgets are bigger, and shows are determined to spend them, so long as it's not on anything unimportant. Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead push new limits on violence, sex, and general cinematic candy, that broadcast never could. Viewers now have "a wealth of options" at their fingertips, bold, uncut and immediate, can happily cut the cord from cable systems' overpriced reality shows, and be set for life, never having to watch a vintage twentieth-century movie or rerun again if need be.
Broadcast, cable and streaming-era TV certainly seems to be all those things.
It's certainly Available. It's certainly Bold. It's certainly not on those old poopie commercial networks with their fascistically enforced airtimes or choices of channels anymore, that only showed you one episode a week. What many are noticing, however, is that in the last few years, what it hasn't been is Fun.
Grimness is now the order of the day. Series are season-arcs, in which no plot will ever be satisfyingly complete without an unsettling cliffhanger development. Former A and B-list actors now act serious and important, trying to justify their career moves, while the show treats them front-and-center to justify their salaries. Editing is harsh and bullet-point, and cinematography is dank and steely, trying to be "cinematic". A "pivotal series moment" usually means that a character will be killed off (fan sites regularly gush over predicting who will be killed off by the end of every season, instantly assuming someone will), or catastrophic 9/11-style disaster will "change the characters' lives forever". So-called "Glass Ceiling" series now feature female attorneys, female doctors, female investigators, etc., grimly determined to be taken seriously in a male profession, and never daring to betray their sisters with a smile, unless a righteously vindictive one against the un-PC.
We're invited to spend some grim, bold, important, unsettling time with characters who, well, seem too determined to be having any FUN.
Why would TV knock itself out to be More Important Than Entertaining?
One year, in an expensive high-profile ad during the 2013 Oscars ceremony, ABC tried promoting their current ratings hit, by targeting the obvious movie-fan demographic with the appeal of all those neato CGI effects and wild fantasy premises on "Once Upon a Time".
If you ever needed any explanation about what happened to TV in the 10's, it's one of those things you can't un-see or un-hear:
Yes, ABC knows: Why do we watch a big-budget effects-heavy show, like Game of Thrones, Walking Dead or Doctor Who? Because it's just like going to a big-budget effects-heavy movie EVERY WEEK!
Some right now are hearing crickets after that, where they thought they would be hearing thunderous applause. Why? Well...it's kind of a weak sell, when you come right down to it. We already have movies pretty much at our fingertips now, and usually in the same places we're finding the TV shows. And having the two together has not only confused us about which one is which, or should be, it's confused themselves as well.
TV now tries to be as Cinematic as the movies, while Movies sell themselves as favorite cult-watch big-budget series, and sell their studio-tentpole franchise entries with post-credits teases to "Tune in next year, for our next exciting episode!"
Things were a bit simpler in the early days: Television was what television had always been since the days of radio--An hour of drama, or a half hour of comedy, variety or information, so long as you remembered to buy the sponsor's soap.
Movies, well, those were different. New movies were things you dressed up and went out of the house to see, and old movies that people used to go out to see were now favorite secret pasttimes during the late-night filler and local-advertising hours, and you got your me-time space ready in the dark with recliner and popcorn.
When a big Hollywood-studio movie premiered on TV--right in your own home and you could stay up to watch in pajamas!--it was an event on Sunday night when all America would be in their living rooms to tune in, and hear Ernie Anderson's ABC-voiced "To-night:" pump you up with the trailer of movie-iconic moments:
And if you missed it, Monday's water-cooler conversation would only remind you that you had. Frustrating, yes, but that was the tradeoff of what you got for nothin' (except a few ad breaks).
Well, we know what happened to that. HBO premium-cable and the VCR saturated the home in the early/mid-80's and soon movies on your TV were as common as squirrels at your bird feeder. Both brought new and recent movies uncut for censorship and without commercial breaks for bathroom and popcorn-refill, and without stretches or condensing for two and three-hour time slots, and networks saw less and less reason to promote an expensive movie that no one would tune in to watch. Especially if it arrived months after we had already seen it in its original form. Movies on network-TV were soon seen as an insult, when Milos Forman began suing over seeing his classics condensed, commercial-broken or cropped for 4:3 screens.
When Disney took over ABC, and now wanted to play with its big national-mainstream toy, it tried bringing back the Saturday Night Movie in the early 00's, showing mainstream films usually as an excuse to tack on some promoted commercial or "sneak peek" of some corporate offering as the bait...But the ratings weren't there anymore. Who needed to watch the first Harry Potter movie, when most families who would want to already owned the complete series on their DVD shelf?
HBO, of course, along with Showtime, could give us one thing that TV couldn't--Nude scenes. As viewer-funded premium channels with their own satellite linkups, movie networks weren't as beholden to sponsors or the FCC, and could not only air movies uncut, but shows uncut as well. In the late 70's and early/mid-80's--when cable either made most of its shows in its garage, or imported it from the looser censorship standards of Canadian television--an "HBO Original Program" like The Hitchhiker or Dream On, or the earlier days of Showtime's "Bizarre", was a little back-alley nudge to that late-night 13-yo. that meant "Free boobs". And before the VCR was in every home, you took a little forbidden fruit where you could get it.
But as HBO and Showtime's fortunes grew, and the networks tried to establish more of an identity with original series and movies, premium channels became the go-to for programming that the networks were afraid to touch! The forbidden fruit was now more controversial than mere cheap papayas: HBO offered a string of made-for-cable biopics about too-hot-to-touch news-disputed figures like Jack Kervorkian, Roy Cohn, and the Jay Leno/David Letterman feud; Showtime could air a too-soon miniseries about the Reagans, HBO could air the Tony-winning gay/AIDS drama "Angels in America", and comic Bill Maher was allowed to air whatever talk-host political conspiracy theory or atheist rant struck his fancy with no higher authority to gag him.
To be Bold got attention, and Who Dares Wins Emmys. The networks were a tad envious.
And then the movies disappeared. Turner Classic Movies, coming from Warner, who had dominion over most of the catalogue classics from Warner, MGM, United Artists, and RKO established their own sovereignty, and other past-movie channels were left to fend for themselves. American Movie Classics and FX got by for a while on Fox and Universal classics, but soon found that if they didn't want to show Jaws and The Omen three nights a week, they'd have to start increasing their original-channel programming.
FX's "The Shield" took advantage of cable's looser envelope for violence and language, and AMC, which had already downgraded itself from a premium to a commercial cable-tier channel, had a string of cult hits whose Boldness hit sweet-spots with an audience ready to be newly addicted to anything. AMC's depiction of the missing 50's-60's male-mystique and consumerism in "Mad Men" was both forbidden-fruit away from the broadcast networks and teasing serial drama, either one to fill a void with their viewer cult. The broadcast networks went into full one-upmanship mode, and tried to throw any chauvinistic beehive-hairdos at us they could, with ABC's "Pan Am" and NBC's "The Playboy Club". One lasted seven episodes, the other didn't do much better.
Soon, former movie-fest channels like AMC, FX and Starz were known more for their Emmy-nominated weekly national cult-addictions, while HBO had America glued to the pottymouthed cowboys of Deadwood and Old-neighborhood violence of The Sopranos. What, movies?...Did we used to show those things? Well, do you see any lying around?
And with broadcast, cable and streaming in the mix, "One-upmanship" has been the word ever since. Like teenagers daring themselves on the schoolyard, the new game is to see what the Biggest Dare is to tackle, and who's going to push the envelope further without ripping it or turning chicken. (Insert Marty McFly's "Nobody...calls me...chicken!" here.)
Sitcoms are considered too frivolous unless it tolerantly shocks our sense of Today's Society--If ABC brings a mixed-gay family sitcom, Amazon must counter with a transgender sitcom, and a family getting by with cerebral palsy must be countered with a family getting by with autism. A procedural thriller of government investigators must be topped with a procedural thriller of post-9/11 terrorist profiling. If Showtime gives us a popular happy serial-killer, the broadcast and cable-tier networks must counter with lovable old Hannibal Lechter and Norman Bates. If you want mere entertainment, well, you're just not up with today's complex, troubled, multicultural society.
And the rule of the serial season-arc, never leave them satisfied, but always wanting MORE.
TV has become afraid of its stagebound set roots. As ABC says, it now must be Epic.
It doesn't want to be the half-hour three-act comedy of a sitcom episode that brought a Broadway stage of ensemble performers into our living room, or a vaudeville of variety, or encapsulated one-hour magazine-adventure of a story. It wants to something BIGGER and more IMPORTANT. Something that will make us gasp, and silence any dispute of its existence. Something that courts awards. Something a corporate empire can be built upon. Something that no one will dare question or laugh at.
And as CS Lewis once observed, there is no one more desperate to "look grownup" than an insecure child.